Posted by: sean | February 20, 2007

Straight talk on Iraq and Iran

I’ve just gotten through reading a Washington Post op-ed by retired Lt. Gen. William Odom on why victory is no longer an option in Iraq. In it, he argues that the main reasons generally given for staying in Iraq — namely, preventing a sectarian bloodbath, curbing Iranian power in the region and stopping the formation of a safe haven for Al-Qaeda — were all pretty much inevitable problems caused when the US made the decision to invade Iraq.

He gives four steps toward changing US policy in Iraq in particular and the Middle East in general:

The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options. Withdrawal will take away the conditions that allow our enemies in the region to enjoy our pain. It will awaken those European states reluctant to collaborate with us in Iraq and the region.

Second, we must recognize that the United States alone cannot stabilize the Middle East.

Third, we must acknowledge that most of our policies are actually destabilizing the region. Spreading democracy, using sticks to try to prevent nuclear proliferation, threatening “regime change,” using the hysterical rhetoric of the “global war on terrorism” — all undermine the stability we so desperately need in the Middle East.

Fourth, we must redefine our purpose. It must be a stable region, not primarily a democratic Iraq. We must redirect our military operations so they enhance rather than undermine stability. We can write off the war as a “tactical draw” and make “regional stability” our measure of “victory.” That single step would dramatically realign the opposing forces in the region, where most states want stability. Even many in the angry mobs of young Arabs shouting profanities against the United States want predictable order, albeit on better social and economic terms than they now have.

I found the article so interesting and reasonable that I did some internet searching on Odom and came across this interview with him by Hugh Hewitt. In the way only a retired general can speak, Odom does not shy away from hard questions, nor from answering them clearly and honestly, without spin.

This is the first time that I’ve seen anyone of any stature in the government, much less in the military (even if he is retired), come out and say the things that I’ve been thinking for a while. He agrees that there’s not much the US can do now to win in Iraq or prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. And he agrees that the current American strategies are counterproductive on both counts, to say the least. There’s one part in the interview where he loses me: when he gets into a Huntingtonian hypothesis that I find pretty silly about how different religions are better suited to democracy than others (Protestants > Catholics > Hindus and Budhists > Muslims and “Confucionists”).

Besides that, though, his ideas about democracy, and particularly the idea that it takes more than elections to constitute one, are interesting. And I think he’s right that Iraq just doesn’t have the tradition that’s necessary for a liberal democracy; these traditions take a lot of time and sometimes bloodshed before they come into their own. I don’t think this has anything to do with being Muslim or Arab, though.

I highly recommend reading the whole interview, but here are some highlights:

On democracy:

WO: Yes, there are only about 24, 25, 26 countries in the world of 191 members at the United Nations that have truly liberal democracies. There are lots of democracies, but they’re illiberal, meaning that they have various levels of tyranny. Rights are not secure, Russia has elections, India has elections, it has a great reputation as a democracy, but your property rights are not stable at the lower, at the village level. A mother-in-law can throw acid in the face of a daughter-in-law and not be taken to the court. There are lots of illiberal things about it. Now those countries are all in the Western political tradition, with a very few exceptions. Japan and I would include South Korea and Taiwan now. The rule on political scientists is their constitutional order generally sticks if it lasts for a generation, about 20 years or more. So the countries I count are ones that have had stable, liberal orders for more than a generation.

HH: Now in the Washington Post article, you said none is a country with Arabic and Muslim political cultures. Does Turkey not qualify in your calculation, General?

WO: It’s a borderline case, but it hasn’t yet been 20 years since the last military intervention.

HH: And so that’s not a counterexample to your hypothesis?

WO: No, it’s not yet. I would like for it to be, and it is the white hope.

HH: What about Indonesia?

WO: Indonesia’s about as illiberal as you can get.

HH: But does it have a constitutional order? They’ve had a couple of elections…

WO: No. No way. Here’s what constitutes a constitutional order. It’s not a piece of paper. A piece of paper, as the Russians, they can put up with anything written on it. The British don’t have a written constitution. It is an agreement on three things at least. Rules to decide who rules, rules to make new rules, rights the state cannot abridge. Now who must agree? If you have a referendum, that’s irrelevant. The elites must agree. Who are the elites? Anybody with enough guns or enough money, or both, to violate the rules with impunity if they want to. Now every one of those countries have groups that violate the rules with impunity, even though they have a constitutional order, I mean, a piece of paper. So I’m looking at countries where the rules have been made [to] stick. By this standard, when did we get a Constitution? Only in 1865.


HH: But what about Lebanon, General? Prior to Arafat’s arrival, and the ruinous introduction of the PLO in exile…

WO: They’ve never had a constitutional order, because there were always factions there that have made the rules when they wanted to. I mean, it’s been…there are almost no stable constitutional systems with three or four or five constitutional orders. Look how unstable Canada becomes occasionally over the French. Switzerland is a huge exception. Britain, with four tribes, is suffering devolution.

HH: But then…now, that’s where I get confused, because are you arguing that there’s just no hope, they need strong men there because they simply cannot support…

WO: No, I’m saying that we can’t do much about it. I’m saying if you’re going to go in, and by ventriloquy expect to create this kind of an order, then you’re not going to be able to do that. You’re going to fail at that. I’ve been involved in several practical cases. In Vietnam, I wrote a book after I retired, reflecting on three cases, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Philippines, but what I was always thinking about was my year involved in pacification and development in Vietnam.

HH: And so the purple finger elections of 2005, of no counterargument to you?

WO: Oh, look. Elections are easy to hold. I grew up in Tennessee, where Boss Ed Crump rigged the elections every year. We knew that. Mayor Daley, the Pendergast machine, boss Tweed? Come on, don’t tell me about elections in the U.S. being honest.

HH: I didn’t make that…I was saying what did that mean, the people, the millions that turned out?

WO: It meant that we held an election out there, and people came and voted.

HH: And what did that, do they aspire to order, General?

WO: Sure, they want order, but voting doesn’t produce order.

HH: I know that, but I’m trying to get at, do you think they aspire to freedom?

WO: Sure. But the question is, how do they get the elites to agree on the rules so that their freedom doesn’t just mean free to kill each other?

HH: And do we help them get closer to the order in which freedom can flourish?

WO: We have made it much worse.

HH: Much worse than Saddam?

WO: Yeah.

On what leaving will mean:

HH: Now you also write in the article that we must, that you dismiss the idea it will get worse if we leave.

WO: No, I said it doesn’t matter how bad it gets, it’s not going to get better by us staying there. You see, I’m not one of those…I personally think that we might end up finding less of a terrible aftermath than we’ve pumped ourselves up to expect, because the President and a lot of other people have really made a big thing of trying to scare us about that. What I’m saying is even if their scare scenarios turn out to be the case, that is the price we have to pay to get out of this trap, and eventually bring a stability to that region which if the Iraqis and other Arab countries want to become liberal systems, they can do it. They’re not going to do it the way we’re headed there now.

HH: From your Sunday Post piece is this couple of lines. “Lawmakers gravely proclaim their opposition to the war, but in the next breath, express fear that quitting it will leave a bloodbath, a civil war, a terrorist haven, a failed state, or some other horror. But this aftermath is already upon us. A prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists.” Do you…

WO: I think that’s a pretty accurate description of what’s happened over the past four years.

HH: So you don’t think it can get worse?

WO: Yeah, it can get worse. It’s gotten worse every year.

HH: But how much worse could it get if we weren’t there?

WO: I don’t know. I don’t think it…look, it will eventually get as bad it can get if we stay there long enough.

On Iran:

HH: All right. Next in your article, you wrote, “We must continue the war to prevent Iran’s influence from growing in Iraq.” That’s one of the arguments you attribute to proponents of staying. And I do believe that’s a very important issue. Do you believe that Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons?

WO: Sure. They’re going to get them.

HH: And should we do anything to stop that?

WO: No.

HH: Why not?

WO: Because we can’t. We’ve already squandered what forces we have, and we’re going to have more countries proliferate. If somebody told us not to proliferate, and that if we wanted to do it and we started, that they were going to change our regime, you damn well bet we’d get nuclear weapons. Well, that’s the approach we’ve taken. We could not have increased Iranian incentives for getting nuclear weapons faster, or more effectively, than the policy we’ve used to keep to prevent them from getting them.

HH: How many years have they been pursuing them, though, General? Long before we invaded Iraq.

WO: Yes, and we had been talking about changing the regime for many years before.

HH: Yes, but the fact remains that they’re very much closer now than they have been in the past, and you don’t think we should do anything to stop that?

WO: No.

HH: And do you believe the statements of Khatamei…

WO: If we can…look, we tried to stop Pakistan, we tried to stop India, and as soon as they go them, we turned around and loved them.

HH: Are the statements…

WO: Now that’s the policy of proliferation that we pursued.

HH: Are the statements of President Ahmadinejad alarming to you?

WO: No.

HH: Why not?

WO: Because I’ve done a study on Iranian foreign policy back from the fall of the Shah’s time up to about 1995. And not withstanding all the rhetoric, and which I believe some of, that we would find the Iranians pursuing a very radical foreign policy in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were not. They were pursuing…they did not try to steal nuclear weapons up there. They did not spend money into the hands of Islamic radicals. The money that came in for Islamic radicals was brought by Pakistani bagmen from Saudi Arabia. The Iranians pursued a very conservative policy. They’ve had two radical policies. One was toward Hezbollah and Israel, and the other’s been toward us.

HH: Do you believe that they were responsible for the massacre of the Jews at the synagogue in South America?

WO: They might well have been.

HH: Do you believe that they have armed Hezbollah with the rockets that rain down on Israel?

WO: Yes.

HH: Do you believe they would use a nuke against Israel?

WO: Not unless Israel uses one against them.

HH: Could you be wrong about that?

WO: Of course you can be wrong about the future.

HH: Are you gambling with Israel’s future, then, to allow a radical regime…

WO: No, Israel’s gambling with its future by encouraging us to pursue this policy.

HH: So Israel should not take unilateral action, either?

WO: That’s up to them, but I think it’ll make it worse for them. Israel’s policies thus far have made its situation much worse. If you read all of the Israel press, you’ll find a lot of them there are firmly in my camp on this issue. And I’ve talked to many Israelis who are very sympathetic with the view I have on it. You’re making it much, much worse for Israel.

HH: Are you familiar…

WO: If I were an Israeli right now, given Olmert’s policies and Bush’s policies, I would fear for my life.

I’ve quoted a fairly meaty chunk of the interview, but there’s still a lot more, and I suggest reading it all.

I don’t have much to add to this, except that I agree with most of what Odon has to say. There’s a point in the interview where Hewitt tries to make it sound like there were more dead Iraqis under Saddam than as a result of this war. Putting aside the fact that most of Saddam’s heinous murdering (at least that on a large scale) had ebbed by 2003, if we just look at the numbers (and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about counting the dead to make policy decisions), then most accounts agree that Saddam was responsible for murdering or “disappearing” about 300,000 Iraqis. If we add to that the death of 1 million people during the Iran-Iraq war, you get 1.3 million deaths spread over 24 years for a rough annual average death rate of 55,000 people. In comparison, there have been an estimated 650,000 Iraqi deaths from the time of the invasion to October 2006, for a rate of over 185,000 deaths a year. If Hewitt would like to compare this war favorably with Saddam Hussein’s rule, looking at death rates is not going to help his case.

Another point that Odon makes that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the difference between Iran’s intentions and its rhetoric. The fact of the matter is that the decision-making process in Tehran is notoriously opaque, and we don’t really know what their intentions are, but it seems reasonable to assume that like most other international actors, they are reasonable in that they have the survival of their regime as a motivator. Hewitt doesn’t agree and brings up (not unreasonably, I might add) the milleniarian leanings of Ahmadinejad:

HH: It doesn’t matter if they’re Millennialists who want to bring in…

WO: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t.

HH: So what they think and what their intentions are don’t matter, General?

WO: You don’t know what their intentions are. You’re just listening to their rhetoric.

HH: Well, should we ever pay attention to what people say?

WO: Yes, we should pay attention sometimes, but I can…I’d pay attention to that, and when I do, I see that it’s very much really the way Kim Jung Il uses his rhetoric. He knows how to cause us to jump up in the air and get all excited, and cause people of your frame of mind, and particularly the neocons’ frame of mind, to start doing things that are not in the U.S. interests. And then as you hit the ground, we’d pay him off and bribe him.

This reminds me of a recent segment on NPR where Jarad Zarif, Iranian ambassador to the UN, was interviewed, followed by some questions for George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both underline the fact that Iranian nuclear ambitions have not changed since even before the reformist Khatami was president; the only thing that’s changed is Tehran’s rhetoric.

So the question is whether hostile rhetoric is enough to escalate tensions and advocate possible (probable?) attacks on Iran. I think not. There are a number of reasons for this, and I’ve gone over them here before, but in a nutshell, I think it’s a bad idea because US attacks would not be able to stop Iran’s nuclear program, would destroy the reform movement in Iran, and would set the US up for Iranian retaliation, which I don’t think its ready for, including, but not limited to, a worsening of the situation in Iraq and the explosion of border between Israel and Lebanon. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad does not even have the power to effectuate foreign policy — that task is left to Khamenei, so it seems strange to put so much stock in his remarks, as incendiary and hostile as they may be.


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